How do we identify a great conductor?

There's levels to this.

Leonard Bernstein is the greatest conductor who ever lived. There is not a particularly close second. There are conductors who have reputations that may imply they exist alongside Bernstein in the firmament, like Karajan or Szell or maybe Furtwangler or, against all logic and reason, Kleiber. They do not exist alongside Bernstein in the firmament. None can touch Bernstein for the sheer breadth of his quality recordings in disparate repertoire, a not insignificant amount of which is likely the very best in the specific work in question. Even in opera, where he barely spent any time (though he did conduct the US premiere of Peter Grimes, one of the great operas of the 20th century), Bernstein has a couple efforts which are of the utmost quality, especially some of his early stuff at La Scala with Maria Callas.

It goes without saying that there are some mediocre performances in Bernstein’s recorded legacy, especially in his Deutsche Grammophon years with the Vienna Philharmonic. And he has a small handful of duds on his record as well, the most egregious of which is probably the weird sort of semi-revised Carmen he recorded with the Metropolitan Opera. On the whole, however, his record simply laps the field, and this is without even considering his massive impact on the culture of the United States during his lifetime.

The second tier is only slightly larger than Bernstein’s tier of one and presumably includes the guys referenced above with the exception of Kleiber, who will figure prominently in this discussion momentarily, I assure you. Add in a few other legends like Stokowski, Ormandy, Toscanini, and a few guys from the digital age, Mackerras and Chailly being the best of that lot. I could be talked into adding Blomstedt to this tier and would probably try to force a couple of my favorite conductors, Suitner and Kondrashin, in here as well. The qualifications here are essentially the same as Bernstein’s - mostly excellent recordings, some of which are the best of the work in question - but with less breadth and depth in the repertoire.

The third tier includes the likes of Abbado, Solti, Boulez, Haitink, Giulini, Mravinsky, etc. The ratio of mediocre or outright poor recordings is too high for them to be included in the second tier, but they still have an impressive amount of first class recordings on their record. As you can tell from the five name sample in the first sentence, this is the tier for most of the conductors that we think of as great.

Where this discussion gets really interesting is in the fourth tier because it’s the tier of which criteria is a bit murkier in my mind. Do we simply keep going with the idea of a “ratio of excellent to not excellent recordings” or do we shift gears a bit into examining someone for a general level of quality even if their recordings rarely, if ever, make it to the top of the list of any particular work’s best performances? The answer is probably both and so we end up with the likes of Ansermet, Dohnanyi, Harnoncourt, Sawallisch, Monteux, etc. If I’m being honest with myself, this is probably where Suitner and Kondrashin belong. This is also Kleiber’s tier. Even though he has a number of excellent recordings and only a couple duds, his repertoire was so limited as to render him ineligible for anything above this. Arguing that Kleiber be anywhere above this would be like arguing that Steve Kerr belongs in the same class as Scottie Pippen and I simply will not listen to this argument!

The fifth tier is occupied by the conductors who would be considered “specialists” in one way or another, folks like Skrowaczewski, Rilling, Gardiner, and Craft. Within an extremely limited subset their work is superlative, but anything that exists outside that subset is generally the only thing worse than bad, it’s forgettable. Tier six is the “it doesn’t really matter if I ever hear anything conducted by this person again in my life because even at their absolute best it’s still only good” group, headlined with great fanfare by Simon Rattle. Horenstein is here as well, along with Thielemann, who probably deserves his own tier in a shallow ditch somewhere off the highway.

What got me thinking about any of this, aside from the usual derangement, was an offhand comment made in one of the litany of YouTube videos being put out by the critic Dave Hurwitz, whose channel I cannot recommend more highly. I don’t even remember what the topic was, though I would have to assume it was something to do with Bruckner. In the video, Hurwitz made a snarky comment (as he often does, which is one of the great appeals of his channel!) about Japan’s second greatest conductor, Takashi Asahina. The gist of the comment was that Asahina was one of those conductors who had a reputation that he didn’t deserve and that his recordings were overrated. It got me to thinking about two things. To which tier does Asahina belong? And is he secretly better than Kleiber?

Asahina’s discography is the very definition of the core Austro-German repertoire: several Beethoven cycles, a Brahms cycle, multiple Bruckner cycles, some Mahler, the last couple Schubert symphonies. The other stuff is like someone Googled “most popular orchestral works” and started recording from the top of a list they found on the third page of results: Scheherazade and Sibelius Symphony no. 2 and Pictures at an Exhibition and Wagner Overtures and Dvorak Symphony no. 8 and so on. Given his position as something of a pioneer in promoting Western classical music in Japan, including founding the Osaka Philharmonic, this repertoire makes a pretty fair amount of sense.

Asahina’s recordings are only a bit more numerous than Kleiber’s, who has justly famous recordings of Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 7 and Brahms Symphony no. 4 along with an excellent Vienna Philharmonic New Years Eve concert recording and several noteworthy opera recordings. Considering how shallow his repertoire is, to even have this many quality recordings is quite something. It must be said that none of Kleiber’s recordings are top of their class, even if they’re excellent. Nevertheless, when BBC Music Magazine did their survey of conductors to rank the 20 greatest conductors of all time a few years back, Kleiber topped this list. That Simon Rattle was sixth tells you that the results of that list are stupid and can safely be ignored, but it certainly speaks to Kleiber’s gaudy reputation. I know all the stories about Kleiber’s supposedly intense commitment to rehearsal and the improvisatory beauty that could arise in concert from that preparation (that rehearsal DVD of the Merry Wives of Windsor Overture is amazing), but we can only judge what we can judge.

For his part, Asahina has several recordings that are nothing to get excited about, especially the stuff outside the symphony cycles. There is no need to listen to most of it, although he does do a pretty epic run through the last 45 minutes of Götterdämmerung that is worth your time. He does, however, have several really outstanding recordings in the Beethoven and Bruckner cycles that stand up to anything out there, and the best Schubert Symphony no. 9 ever recorded, a performance with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony that manages to take every last repeat and still be a raging forest fire of energy. His greatest recording, however, is of the Alpine Symphony, a performance that ultimately led to him earning the only little slice of fame he ever had in America when he conducted Bruckner’s Symphony no. 5 with the Chicago Symphony in 1996. Henry Fogel, the president of the CSO at the time, described it thusly:

I first saw him conduct the Alpine Symphony of Strauss in 1991, having never heard of him and having no idea what he was like. I went out of respect for my hosts (I was a judge in a conducting competition), and when I saw this elderly man walking out to the podium my expectations were low. The performance was, from the outset, remarkable, and within five minutes I was convinced that I was watching (and hearing) a major conductor. Though the tempi were slow, he managed to get his orchestra to sustain the line over long phrases. Bar lines disappeared – he conducted in paragraphs, not sentences. His sonority was built from the bottom up, founded on the basses and cellos, and also built around a rich string sound. Although the music had force and power, it was never angular, never overly aggressive. It always had beauty, an inner beauty and even spirituality.

For a work that can really struggle to sustain itself, it’s a jaw dropping performance, nearly ten minutes longer than Rudolf Kempe’s legendary recording. And you can listen to it on YouTube, where some kind soul has even broken the video down into movement tracks. I rarely bother with any other performances of the Alpine anymore because this one is just so special, a true once-in-a-lifetime confluence of circumstances. It’s a performance that would already be legendary if it were conducted by Giulini.

In the end, those of us who have spent any time listening to his music-making would agree that Asahina belongs squarely in the fourth tier alongside Kleiber and company, with a special status conferred upon him by the fact that he is one of the main reasons that the Japanese are so God damned excited about classical music. Poke around the internet and hear the magic for yourself.